Golden dollars were the government’s attempt at the end of the millennium to once again circulate a dollar coin. (The previous attempt, the Susan B. Anthony, in 1979 and 1980, was a failure with the public.) The United States Mint introduced the golden dollar, bearing the likeness of Sacagawea, the Shoshone guide who twice saved the lives of Lewis and Clark, and her baby, Jean Baptiste, who was born on the trail, in January 2000.
I got interested in dollar coins after visiting Quebec in 1998. I bought something for about $3, paid with a $10 bill, and thought at first I was short-changed when I received only coins. Looking closer, I saw that I had been given $1 and $2 coins. Canada’s smallest paper money is the $5 note.
When the United States Mint introduced its golden coin, I thought the golden dollar was the prelude to the discontinuance of the paper dollar, which costs the government much more than the dollar coin. The Mint website says the golden dollar could save up to $500 million. A paper dollar lasts about 18 months, but a coin lasts decades. The paper money is cheaper to make but is more expensive in the long run since so many more must be made. In 2000 I decided I would lead the charge toward the reign of the Sacagawea, and I started getting rolls of 25 at the bank on payday.
Most clerks don’t react other than to make change when I hand them golden dollars, but some react more visibly, in one of two ways: either they are pleasantly surprised, as if I just handed them magic beans, or they think, as is clearly apparent by their facial expressions, that I’ve saddled them with worthless currency akin to Confederate paper money in 1866. A grocery store clerk once rolled her eyes and said, “Oh joyyyy.” Another clerk complained that he had scores of dollars at home and he didn’t know what to do with them. In one of those “I wish I had said …” moments, I later realized I should have said, with great sarcasm, “It is legal tender; you can spend it.”
The eye-rolling clerk complained that some golden dollars had already turned black. I haven’t seen any turn black, but the dollars do darken. The U.S. Mint website says the darkening accents the profile of Sacagawea and Jean Baptiste. The Sacagawea is a golden dollar, not a gold dollar, because it contains no gold and instead derives its color from copper encased in a gold-colored manganese-brass alloy. The gold color was meant to distinguish Sacagawea from the quarter, because people complained that the silver grooved-edge Susan B. was easily confused with the quarter. The inside of Susan’s border forms 11 straight surfaces that contrast with the round outer edge, and Sacagawea’s border is wider than that of the quarter, both meant to distinguish the coins by touch as well as appearance.
Most people I know still prefer the paper dollar. Men don’t want a pocket full of metal dollars, and I doubt I want most men to carry a pocket full of change either — it annoys me when a bored man jingles his pocket change or his car keys. I eliminated the pocket change problem years before the golden dollar was issued by carrying my change in a leather drawstring pouch, so adding the dollar was not a problem. The pouch appeals to my love of history — movies set in the 1600s and 1700s often show two people arguing: the hero throws his pouch full of metal money at the woman he’s abandoning and says, “Take it! I don’t want it!”
At first the golden dollars came in crisp Mint wrappers, but later I started getting mixed rolls of the Sacagawea and Susan. The United States Dollar Coin Act of 1997 authorized the golden dollar but did not call for the elimination of the paper dollar, so we have three dollars in circulation. It seems that Sacagawea must endure the same relegation to obscurity that Susan suffered. It was the same with the state quarters. People avidly collected the state quarters at first, but the hullabaloo has subsided, and those big state quarter-holders in the form of United States maps are appearing at the thrift stores.
Now the golden dollar has been discontinued, and I have trouble finding it. My bank quit carrying rolls of dollar coins, and I only occasionally find a few coins. But I still like them, and I still hope they’ll supersede the paper dollar.
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